Friday, 2 September 2016

William Herschel, Bath, and How He Found Uranus

William Herschel, Court Astronomer to King George III and first President of the Royal Astronomical Society, lived in Bath at 19 New King Street from 1777-1782. Despite his amazing discoveries and feats of engineering in making the best telescopes of the day (his forty-foot telescope was said at the time to be one of the wonders of the world, and even appeared on Ordnance Survey maps) he’s not that well known. So this week’s blog takes a brief look this too-often forgotten Bath resident.

Herschel’s biggest discovery has to be the one he made on the 13th of March 1781. While making observations through one of his homemade telescopes which he’d set up in the back garden of his house at New King Street, William Herschel discovered Uranus. It was revolutionary as it was the first planet to be discovered since antiquity. He became famous practically overnight thanks to this discovery. Although before this he had done much for astronomy by way of his work on double stars (pairs of stars that were very close together visually), and observing Saturn’s rings and the Great Orion Nebula.

William was incredibly gifted and a rare scientific star, but amazingly he wasn’t the only astronomer in the family. His sister Caroline who lived with him was also an astronomer of note who did lots of valuable work on comets. She also helped him in making his discoveries; noting down his findings which he would shout out to her from his place at the telescope, copying out astronomical catalogues, and a great many other indispensable tasks. She was so important to him that when William became Court Astronomer, Caroline’s work was officially recognised by George III and she was given an annual salary of £50 and became the first woman in England to be given a government position.

The pair were both talented musicians too. William played the violin, harpsichord, organ and oboe, and Caroline sang and played a number of instruments. William actually first came to Bath in 1766 to try to be a professional musician as he was a highly gifted composer. Caroline began performing soprano parts in concerts arranged by William soon after her arrival in Bath. Astronomy soon became their main focus though. Caroline said that ‘almost every room in the house turned into a workshop’ with William ‘grinding glasses and turning eye pieces’ to build his famous telescopes.

More about William and Caroline can be found at 19 New King Street which is now the Herschel Museum of Astronomy, and there is a lot to be found out! If you haven’t visited the museum before it is well worth a visit. The house has been fully restored in the authentic style of the period and Dr. Brian May (the lead guitarist of Queen) is the Museum’s patron. Which is rather appropriate since, like William Herschel before him, he’s both a musician and an astronomer.

Opening times are 1pm-5pm (last entry 4.15pm) on weekdays, and 11am-5pm (again last entry is at 4.15pm) on weekends and bank holidays.  

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